Partnership with Aloha Green propels research on potential new therapeutics

September 15, 2021

Partnerships with various community organizations and stakeholders are key to the success of the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center in its mission to reduce the burden of cancer in Hawaiʻi and the Pacific Islands. While many of these partnerships are with local hospitals, cancer-focused organizations, or academic institutions, others are less obvious and can come from unexpected places. One such partnership with Aloha Green has turned out to be essential for the success of a project focused on developing new therapeutics for cancer from ironweed.

Researchers within the UH Cancer Center’s Cancer Biology (CB) Program are investigating natural products from Hawaiʻi’s local, endemic species to discover novel chemical compounds that can be used to study cancer molecular pathways and develop new treatments for cancer.

Over five years ago, UH Cancer Center researchers began studying ironweed, a plant that is plentiful throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Tea made from ironweed is consumed in many places, including Hawaiʻi, as a tonic. The plant contains a natural product called hirsutinolide, which suppresses the action of the cellular protein, STAT3. When STAT3 is activated, the protein causes cells to divide uncontrollably. Although STAT3 plays a necessary role in healthy cells, its dysfunction has been noted in a number of cancers, including triple negative breast cancer, some brain cancers, and certain types of leukemias.

Currently, there is no cancer treatment that targets STAT3. Researchers at the UH Cancer Center are working to determine the way hirsutinolide interacts with STAT3 at the molecular level in hopes of developing new and more effective cancer treatments.

To proceed with this research, investigators needed to extract hirsutinolide from the ironweed plant, which is most easily done with a supercritical carbon dioxide extractor. The UH Cancer Center does not have access to this type of specialized and costly equipment, but a partnership with Aloha Green Apothecary has helped to address the problem.

“I was happy to partner with UH Cancer Center researchers on this project. Aloha Green has a number of patients and employees that have been or are affected by cancer,” said T.Y. Cheng, president of Aloha Green. “Similar to the UH Cancer Center, we are committed to supporting and educating the community. I’m glad we were able to provide assistance on a project as important as this one.”

The UH Cancer Center’s ironweed studies look at the effects of hirsutinolide on a number of cancers, including triple negative breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among females in the state, and triple negative breast cancer represents a significant fraction of these cases. Researchers have found that STAT3 is aberrantly up-regulated in triple negative breast cancer, so a hirsutinolide-based treatment that suppresses STAT3 activation could provide alternative ways to control the disease.

“My coworkers and I really appreciate Aloha Green’s help and generosity,” said UH Cancer Center Researcher Marcus Tius, PhD. “Their contribution has had a large and positive impact on our research helping us overcome an otherwise difficult problem.”

Through this partnership with Aloha Green, the UH Cancer Center has been able to find more effective ways to work towards reducing the burden of cancer throughout the Pacific. The Cancer Center is extremely grateful for the continued support from the community that makes our research possible.